Attack on Middle Class Construction Jobs: Taking from the 99% for the 1%

Mark Price
Reading Eagle
February 28, 2012

There is a battle taking place in Harrisburg over a state law that ensures the construction workers who build schools and fire stations in our communities are paid a fair middle-class wage.

This battle is not about lowering costs for public building projects. It is about catering to owners and executives of contractors who pad their pockets by paying workers’ poorly.

Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law sets minimum wage standards for jobs on public construction projects. The standards are based on the wages paid on other large-scale, non-residential construction projects in the local area.

We often hear stories about savings of 10%--or even 30%--that will result if we just got rid of the prevailing wage law. And that’s what they are --- stories -- because there isn’t any actual evidence of savings. People who make this claim simply assume that cheaper labor means lower costs.

But does it?

When you pay less for labor, you don’t necessarily get the same quality of work. Lower quality labor might use more hours and require more rework. The project might end up costing as much—or more—without prevailing wage.

A lot of real-world evidence backs up the claim that prevailing wage laws do not increase costs. Some of this evidence compares construction costs in states with and without prevailing-wage laws. Other evidence comes from looking at whether construction costs change when states weaken or eliminate a prevailing wage law.

Here in Pennsylvania, for example, the Keystone Research Center examined changes in public school construction bids in the late 1990s when prevailing wages were lowered substantially in rural areas. While construction costs were rising throughout the state during this economic growth period, school construction bids increased most where prevailing wages fell.

If careful analysis of real-world experience shows that prevailing wage laws don’t drive up costs, why fix what isn’t broken?

Yet the state Legislature is considering various proposals that would weaken Pennsylvania’s prevailing-wage law. Concerned citizens should let the legislators know they’ve got it backwards. We need laws that create more middle-class jobs for the 99 percent not transfer more of the economic pie to the 1 percent.

A version of this Op-Ed original appeared in the Reading Eagle on Feburary 28, 2012.

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